How do you learn to stop breathing?

To an addict, using is almost as necessary as breathing. To a parent of one, worrying is just as urgent. Could you stop breathing?

I’ve never been addicted to drugs or alcohol. Use of them is not terribly alluring to me. But tales of others’ experience with addiction, for some reason, is. I think it’s the power of destruction. I want to understand it. I want to touch it, only safely.

Though I won’t be touched by it directly (I believe), the most likely way the disease of addiction will affect me is that a loved one will be. It could be one of my children, a different family member, a friend, or the child of one. It is possible, even probable, that someone I know and care about will become a substance abuser or addict.

That’s what made Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, by David Sheff, more relevant than any other story of drug addiction. David Carr’s was first person, though he tried to capture the effect of his behavior on others through extensive interviews. When drugs touch me, it will be third person. Like Sheff, the thing I am most likely to become addicted to is worry.

Sheff lived that worry as his son Nic — user of just about everything, including meth — became an addict, entered remission and relapsed, again, and again, and again. Sheff doesn’t just tell the story of his son and himself but also of the disease, consulting the world’s leading experts in addiction and recovery and explaining, in simple terms, some of what is known about them. For example, he learned from brain scans that when an addict craves drugs his brain’s pain centers are activated. Of all the drugs, meth is the worst. The pain of withdrawal is severe, nearly impossible to ignore. Relief of it, with meth, becomes almost as necessary as breathing.

As Nic learns and fails and relearns to live in harmony with his addiction, his dad learns and fails and relearns to live in harmony with his concern for his son. It’s all too easy for worry, like addiction, to consume, to destroy relationships as it destroys oneself. Ultimately, the parent must let go, to love without codependence, to support without enabling. The line is gray and shifting. It’s agonizingly hard. Worry distracts from the pain but never removes it. In a sense, one must have faith in something other than worry, faith in its limitations, faith that control is an illusion. By the book’s end, David Sheff seems to be in recovery from crippling worry. It took him years. I wonder how long it’d take me were I in his shoes.

I highlighted many passages in Beautiful Boy. I think the following best describes the destination of the journey of someone who cares for an addict.

“For all their tears and heartache and desperately good intentions, most families of addicts are defeated in the end,” writes Beverly Conyers. “Addicts persist in their self-destructive, addictive behavior until something within themselves — something quite apart from anyone else’s efforts — changes so radically that the desire for the high is dulled and ultimately deadened by the desire for a better life.”

Though his father’s support was, no doubt, crucial, even lifesaving, Nic ultimately had to do the hard work of recovery on his own. He has written two books about it, which I have not read. They’re on my list.


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